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Marlena Rundquist thought everything was squared away for her Sept. 4 wedding on Oahu.
It had been months since the Tucson bride-to-be booked her flight and a short-term vacation rental for her bridal party. So she was shocked when her VRBO host contacted her about a week ago to cancel her reservation.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on?'” she said. “They said a new law was passed and that they could be fined. I said: ‘Is there any way you can rent to us and keep it between us?’ They were like: ‘Yeah, we can’t risk that.'”
As Honolulu cracks down on illegal vacation rentals, hosts of Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway units are canceling their bookings and altering their business models, leaving potentially thousands of tourists scrambling to find new accommodations – some within weeks of their flights to Oahu.
Renting units for fewer than 30 days outside of resort zones has been illegal for decades, but the city failed to enforce the law. The crackdown, which took effect Aug. 1, allows the city to use advertisements as evidence of illegal activity – a move that threatens the shutdown of about 5,000 rentals. Violators could face fines of as much as $10,000 a day. The day after the law took effect, the city said there was a nearly 37% decrease in listings compared to two weeks prior.
Honolulu officials, rental operators, neighbors and lobbyists have been following the short-term vacation rental saga for years. But for tourists planning their weddings, anniversaries and vacations in the Aloha state, cancellations are coming as an unpleasant surprise.
“I had a full-blown anxiety and panic attack,” Rundquist said. “It was literally a month away. I couldn’t find anywhere to go. The people still willing to take a fine had hiked the prices: $200 a night went to almost $500 a night. Hotels were upping the price.”
Changing the location of the wedding was out of the question, Rundquist said. After she secured a refund from VRBO, she found someone on Oahu willing to rent to her.
“I’m still nervous because you don’t know between now and then if anything will happen,” she said.
Tommy Szymanski is visiting Oahu this month from Oregon to celebrate a friend’s wedding as well as his own anniversary. Within the past two weeks, his rentals in Waikiki and the North Shore both contacted him to deliver the news.
“The Waikiki reservation canceled Saturday and was like: ‘Yup, that’s it. We’re closing up shop on four different places and are trying to figure out what to do,'” Szymanski said. “I’m sitting here going ‘Really?’ My initial reaction – and this is from an outsider not knowing the stuff behind Hawaii’s politics – the resorts are getting exactly what they wanted with this bill.”
Szymanski tried to find a hotel room through Travelocity, but the options weren’t appealing.
“The cost for two nights for a place on Travelocity was the cost of six nights through my Airbnb,” he said, adding that the remaining options on Airbnb were uninspiring. “There were either ones with horrible reviews or they were substantially more expensive.”
In the end, Szymanski found a legal Airbnb in Waikiki that is pricier and lower quality than what he had before but will do. And his North Shore host offered to host him and his wife for free.
“She felt bad because it was last-minute,” he said. “I’ll do something nice for her as a thank you.”
The new enforcement law doesn’t just affect visitors.
Mililani resident Kristen Sutton is planning her October wedding in the Waimea Valley. She was looking forward to seeing friends and family from neighboring islands and her hometown of Hilton Head, South Carolina. Most of her 60 guests were planning to stay in Airbnbs, she said.
“October is coming up, and some of them are just now learning they don’t have a place to stay so they’re clambering to find something,” she said. “I was like, oh they’re really enforcing this. I was upset.”
Hotels are limited on the North Shore and too expensive for some of Sutton’s visitors, she said. Despite her efforts to keep costs down for her guests – giving them ample notice to plan and save and telling them not to bring any presents – it wasn’t enough. Two of her bridesmaids will no longer be able to attend her wedding.
“We have guests that are going to stay with us because it would be too expensive for them to get a hotel,” Sutton said.
A therapist who works with homeless people, Sutton said she understands the argument from the new law’s advocates that Oahu needs more affordable housing. But she also feels that eliminating short-term vacation rentals wasn’t the answer.
“We’re an island that needs tourism,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re trying to make it more difficult for people to come here.”
For Szymanski, short-term home rentals provide the kind of quiet, secluded vacation experience he and his wife appreciate, “versus a hotel where you’re watching the ocean from your balcony with 2,000 other people staring at the ocean from their balconies.”
When it comes to future vacations, Szymanski said he’s more likely to book a trip to Mexico than Honolulu.
“Why on earth would I spend a lot of time in Hawaii when there are other places I can go for a fraction of the price?”
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